By: Chris Fusco, Chicago Sun-Times: July 24th, 2014

The not-for-profit group that oversees high school sports in Illinois should be subject to state open-record laws because it “performs a governmental function” and generates income “from events involving predominately public schools,” a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the Better Government Association contends.

The government watchdog group’s case, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, aims to force the Illinois High School Association to disclose details about its sponsorship deals, vendors, pension expenses and other aspects of its $11-million-a-year budget.

IHSA officials have said they aren’t required to comply with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act because the association doesn’t get money directly from taxpayers and membership is voluntary.

“We are a Bloomington-based non-profit (501 c 3) that is not subject to FOIA,” IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman wrote in denying a BGA records request last month.

The BGA lawsuit, however, notes that IHSA lawyers argued in 2005 that the sports governing body “was organized for the purpose of conducting public business” and is a “state actor.” The IHSA attorneys — who made those statements in an appellate court filing in response to a defamation case the association ultimately won — also described Hickman as a “public employee.”

The IHSA’s own words “make clear IHSA is a public body under FOIA,” according to the BGA complaint, filed by the Loevy & Loevy law firm.

The suit also names as a defendant south suburban Consolidated High School District 230, whose administrators include Andrew High School Principal and IHSA board member Robert Nolting. Besides seeking records from the IHSA, the BGA requested IHSA records from District 230, which denied the request, saying the documents sought “do not pertain to the transaction of the district’s public business.”

IHSA spokesman Matt Troha said association officials would need to review the complaint before deciding whether to comment. Nolting and a District 230 spokeswoman declined to comment.

The BGA lawsuit follows a series of Chicago Sun-Times reports detailing how the IHSA has seen its costs for salaries and benefits rise as revenues and profits have fallen at its marquee event, the state boys basketball tournament. More than a quarter of the association’s 25 employees get more than $110,000 a year in salary and benefits.

It also comes as not-for-profit school sports groups in other states are being forced to make their records public. In April, a Tennessee appeals court ruled that the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association is subject to Tennessee’s public records law. In March, South Dakota legislators enacted a law making the South Dakota High School Activities Association subject to that state’s open-records law.

Besides suing the IHSA, the BGA filed a similar open-records case last month against Navy Pier Inc., the not-for-profit group that runs government-owned Navy Pier under a 2011 deal with the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. Like the IHSA, Navy Pier Inc. is refusing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, citing its not-for-profit status.